Natchez, MS – Conjuring Another Era

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Cherokee antebellum mansion Natchez MS

Cherokee, 1794

Magnolia Hills antebellum mansion Natchez MS

Magnolia Hall, 1858

Longwood antebellum mansion Natchez MS

Driveway to Longwood

Longwood antebellum mansion Natchez MS

Longwood, 1859

Longwood antebellum mansion Natchez MS Longwood antebellum mansion Natchez MS Antebellum gown Natchez Bicycle Club Griffith McComas House Natchez MS

Griffith McComas House

Glen Auburn mansion Natchez, MS

Glen Auburn, 1875

Melrose mansion Natchez, MS

Melrose - from the front.

Melrose mansion Natchez, MS

Melrose - from the back.

Slave quarters at Melrose mansion in Natchez MS

Slave quarters at Melrose.

Ravennaside mansion Natchez Mississippi

Ravennaside, 1902.

Natchez, Mississippi

April 25-28, 2008 - Driving inland from Bay St. Louis, we stopped in Natchez, Mississippi

for a few days before starting up the Natchez Trace Parkway.  This plantation-era city,

the first city built on the Mississippi River, is loaded with beautiful homes.  Some are

"antebellum" mansions, which we learned means "before the rebellion," that is, before

the Civil War.  Plantation owners engaged in serious one-upsmanship with each other,

building homes that were ever more elaborate.  The most stunning of these homes grace

the outskirts of town where they still stand on very large and grand parcels of land.  Most

of these mansions have been

lovingly restored and are open

to the public as museums.

Some are even available to host weddings.

Urban aristocrats of the 1800's built elegant homes in town, many of

which now offer overnight accommodation as guest houses.  Wandering

around this town and these homes made us feel like we were peering into

a bygone era of immense wealth and of gracious, slow--paced, elegant

living.  We toured much of the town by bike.  It was a perfect way to

experience it.  The traffic was fairly light, and the downtown area was so

tightly packed with mansions that we were constantly hopping on and off

the bikes to admire them.  Each mansion has a a story to tell.

Perhaps the most dramatic was the story of Longwood.  At the time

that this mansion was being built, it was on track to be the largest

mansion by far.  Being octagonal, its construction was complex.  It

took 600 slaves 9 years to build it, and by 1859 only the exterior

was completed.  However, when the war broke out construction

stopped.  After the war ended the man of the house died.  His wife

raised their ten children in the basement of the house -- the only

finished part -- and she lived in the basement until her death, some

25 years later.

The Longwood

mansion was

beautiful, but its sad

story hung like a

cloak over the whole

estate.  The ancient

trees on the

property were

loaded with Spanish

moss, giving

everything a heavily overgrown feeling.  It made me think of Sleeping Beauty

and the prince who had to cut his way through the thick overgrowth to find his

beloved fast asleep in her cobweb filled castle.  Up close Spanish moss has

the appearance of cobwebs growing between the leaves.

As we rode back into town one afternoon we discovered

that the Natchez Bicycle Club was hosting their Belles on

Bikes century ride that day.  The ride was strictly for

women -- the men in the club were relegated to providing

SAG support!!  We hung around and chatted with some

club members while the women came in from their

vigorous ride along the Natchez Trace Parkway.  After a

morning of mansion-gawking and pondering Mississippi life

in the mid-1800's, it was refreshingly familiar to hear about

the hills and wind out on the Parkway.  Mark chatted with

the bike mechanic about the bike

business while I snuck behind the club's

peep-through painting of a 19th century

Belle with a Bike.

There is a certain fantasy about

wearing those beautiful long

hooped dresses and wafting

about your plantation mansion

as an elegant and beautiful

young southern belle in 1850.

It's a girl thing.  The bike club

had it right when they painted

the peep-through dress for

photos of their Belles on Bikes.

The Natchez Bicycle Club jersey is certainly a cool

jersey, and at times in my life I've probably worn more

cycling jerseys than any other garment.  But when we

went into the visitors center and I saw the pink

hooped dress on display -- the real thing -- my inner

princess came alive.  What fun it must have been in

those days.  It might have been impossible to sit

down, but wouldn't it have been a thrill to be the Belle

of the Ball in that dress in one of those mansions?

Sadly, not everyone was able to live

that way, and when we climbed on

our bikes again we decided to go to

other parts of town to see how the

non-mansion-dwellers lived.  It was

startling to see the degree to which

the mansion owners shoved their

wealth in the faces of those around

them.  Just one street away we

found rows of homes that

were as modest as the others

were lavish.  Suddenly the

conspicuous wealth that had

seemed so dreamy a

moment ago now felt

offensive.  We wandered

beyond these homes to

back parts of town that were

truly struggling, even today,

and we heard loud voices.

Turning a corner we came

across a group of men

shooting the breeze on a

dilapidated porch.  They

were seated on battered

couches and kicked back on

broken chairs, laughing and

joking together as we rolled by.  I waved, and they waved back and called out, "Hi there

Lady!"  I felt as though we had finally found the real Natchez, the one that isn't mentioned

in all the brochures about the civil war, the plantations and the mansions.

The Mississippi River was cresting at a record high during the days we were in Natchez.

We rode to a bluff that overlooks the river and Louisiana on the far banks.  We got talking

to the folks around us and discovered we were surrounded by local people who had

come to see the swollen river.  Several told us they had lived in Natchez all their lives and

never paid much attention to the river, but now they were watching it everyday because it

was rising higher than it ever had.  We rode down to "Natchez Under the Hill," the rowdy

part of town in the old days.  We found it was not only under the hill but under water!  The

Isle of Capri casino boat was still tied to the docks, but the parking lot for the casino was

totally submerged.  As on the bluff, we found more local residents down in this area

staring and taking pictures of the high water.

A group of adorable kids

was out for a look at the river with their moms.  They were so cute

Mark asked if they'd mind lining up for a picture.  They were tickled at

the idea and huddled around him afterwards to look at the shot in the

back of his camera.  They had been searching for alligators because

there were warning signs posted at the water's edge.  They weren't

lucky enough find one, but that didn't matter.  They started looking for

sharks instead!

The National Park Service maintains Melrose, one of the antebellum

plantation estates.  It is a large complex with outbuildings in addition

to the main house.  The back of the house is almost as grand as the

front.  I was surprised to learn that some of these Natchez mansions

were essentially just winter homes for their residents.  Several

families spent summers in the northeast or touring Europe and

returned to Natchez for just a few months a year.  It was hard to

assimilate the idea of that lifestyle with the slave building at Melrose

which housed several families in very tight quarters.  Kids began

helping their parents work at age 6, parents were deliberately split up

and sold to separate owners, and the only rest anyone got was after

sundown.

Back in town we

cycled past

Ravennaside.

This gracious

home was built

in 1902 by the

woman who

spearheaded the

effort to create the

Natchez Trace

Parkway -- the next

stop in our travels.  We

just liked the look of the

house and the sculptures in the back yard,

and we paused for a moment to admire it.

What a surprise it was when the gates

suddenly swung open and a Lincoln

Continental pulled out of the driveway.  It is

still a residence!

After enjoying the history and culture of Natchez

we struck out to the north along the Natchez

Trace Parkway.